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Cleanth Brooks: An Annotated Bibliography.

Literary criticism as we know it is largely a product of the twentieth century. Although general principles and specific judgments have been debated since classical antiquity, heated arguments over critical methodology seem peculiar to our time. This is certainly due in part to the proliferation of theories in other areas of knowledge. Because literature is so intimately connected with all of human experience, it is only natural that such revolutionary thinkers as Darwin, Marx, and Freud should affect the way in which we view song and story. If Henry Adams is correct in arguing that the transition from medieval to modern times has been a movement from unity to multiplicity, the rise of critical pluralism in our age could hardly have been avoided.

Curiously enough, the critical method that has probably been most influential and showed the most staying power has gone against this pluralistic, interdisciplinary trend. Although literary historians can trace the roots of aesthetic formalism all the way back to Aristotle, the modern movement probably began in 1924 when a Cambridge don named Ivor Armstrong Richards published his groundbreaking work Principles of Literary Criticism. Over the next several years, Richards conducted a series of experiments in which he put his theories into pedagogical practice. These were chronicled in Practical Criticism, a volume that Richards published in 1929.

Richards's experiments empirically demonstrate the difficulty that even the best educated modern students experience in reading poetry. Richards gave his students a total of thirteen unidentified poems and asked for critical responses. When judged by commonly accepted literary standards, five of the thirteen poems should have been considered bad; six good to great; and two borderline. Richards's students - confronting the text without the benefit of history or biography - not only varied widely in their judgments, but also fell prey to every conceivable form of misreading. Although it would have been easy enough for Richards to have given them the "right" answers, his concern was with nurturing the sort of critical intelligence that would enable his students to come up with those answers on their own.

It was not until seventeen years after Principles of Literary Criticism and twelve years after Practical Criticism that John Crowe Ransom inadvertently named the new approach that Richards had helped to start. Anyone who has actually read The New Criticism (1941) realizes that Ransom was describing several different modes of criticism, all admirable but none totally satisfactory. (According to Ransom, T. S. Eliot was the historical critic, Yvor Winters the moral critic, and I. A. Richards - along with "his pupil William Empson" - the psychological critic.) By calling his last chapter "Wanted: An Ontological Critic," Ransom was suggesting an even newer direction in which criticism should move. Unfortunately, the "new criticism" became an umbrella term used to cover Ransom, the critics he discussed, and those he influenced. By the mid-fifties the new criticism was no longer new, and for nearly forty years now it has been repeatedly declared dead. But like the standup balloon punching bag, it seems to keep popping back up no matter how many times it is knocked down.

The durability of the new criticism can be attributed largely to the pervasiveness of its use in the classroom. As important as they may be, books on critical theory and essays in professional journals are not sufficient to alter the literary climate. They can create but not sustain fads. As Richards discovered in Practical Criticism, it is only when ideas are tested in the classroom that they can hope to become part of the general culture. Dangerous and simplistic ideas can be spread this way, but not incomprehensible ones. Even those who think that the new criticism was wrong are forced to admit that it was teachable - perhaps seductively so. And surely the man most responsible for this state of affairs (more so than Richards himself) is Cleanth Brooks.

Before the new criticism got its unfortunate name, Brooks had co-edited two textbooks - An Approach to Literature (1936) and Understanding Poetry (1939) - with Robert Penn Warren. These books, along with Understanding Fiction and Understanding Drama, would go through several editions and myriad adoptions over the ensuing years. In Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939), Brooks rewrote English literary history along new critical lines. Then, in The Well-Wrought Urn (1947), he did it again. In the process, Brooks and the critical movement he epitomized became victims of their own success. Like anyone who is both prominent and distinctive, Brooks was subjected to caricature. In his book A Shaping Joy (1971), he admits that many in the literary world regard the new critic as a myopic exegete, "trapped in a cell without windows or doors, staring through a reading glass at his literary text, effectually cut off from all the activities of the world outside - from history and science, from the other arts, and from nature and humanity itself." One of the virtues of John Michael Walsh's Cleanth Brooks: An Annotated Bibliography is that it helps to dispel that cartoon image by documenting what Brooks has written and what has been written about him.

The standard misconception is that Brooks remained a new critic from the mid-thirties until the mid-fifties - from An Approach to Literature in 1936 until Literary Criticism: A Short History in 1957. With the publication of The Hidden God and William Faulkner. The Yoknapatawpha Country, both in 1963, he presumably abandoned his former approach to pursue thematic studies of favorite writers, particularly William Faulkner. A glance at Walsh's bibliography reveals that view of Brooks to be simplistic nonsense. Brooks's first book was actually a study of linguistics - The Relation of the Alabama-Georgia Dialect to the Provincial Dialects of Great Britain (1935) - and his first published essay a "History of [Thomas] Percy's Edition of Surrey's Poems" (published in Englische Studien in 1933-34).

Nor were those isolated efforts. Brooks's interest in Southern dialects can be seen as recently as his Lamar Memorial Lectures, published in 1985 under the title The Language of the American South. And for the past half century, he has been general editor of a series of scholarly editions of Percy's letters. Conversely, Brooks's writing over the past thirty years has included both close readings of individual texts and theoretical arguments for the new criticism. In a single collection of three lectures, The Rich Manifold (1983), he defends the new criticism against attacks from fashionable theoreticians, including his own former student Stanley Fish.

Scholars who have never had anything good to say about the new criticism are often loathe to praise Brooks, even when he cites historical evidence or points to the moral implications in literature. If anything, their response is like that of a religious skeptic who discovers a prominent television evangelist consorting with loose women. A fairer estimate would recognize that Brooks regards very little in literature or in life as beyond the bounds of intellectual curiosity. Criticism, however, is not primarily the satisfaction of curiosity but the act of evaluation. Some things are clearly germane to that act, while others are not. Robert Heilman puts the matter best when he writes: "For such a person [as Brooks] to say that history is not all is a rather different thing from an ignorant B.A.'s thinking that history is nothing. . . . [T]o declare the literary work self-contained or autonomous was less to deny its connections with the nonliterary human world, past and present, than to assert metaphorically the presence in the poem of suprahistorical uniqueness along with the generic or the hereditary or the culturally influenced."

Even the most complete list of Brooks's published writings gives only a partial sense of what he has accomplished in a remarkable career that is now in its seventh decade. Had he never written a word of criticism, his editorial labors on the original series of the Southern Review from 1935 to 1942 would have earned him an honored place in the literary history of this century. That magazine virtually defined the literary review as we know it today. More than any other single phenomenon, the Southern Review brought Southern literature to the attention of a national and even international audience. It also brought national and international writers to the attention of Southern readers. In addition to Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, and various Fugitives and Agrarians, the Southern Review published work by Ford Madox Ford, Aldous Huxley, Kenneth Burke, Sidney Hook, Delmore Schwartz, I. F. Stone, F. O. Matthiessen, Mary McCarthy, Nelson Algren, James T. Farrell, Philip Rahv, and scores of other luminaries whom one would never think to associate with Southern culture. As a writer for Time magazine observed in 1940, the center of literary criticism in the Western world had moved "from the left bank of the Seine to the left bank of the Mississippi."

Brooks was firmly committed to his vocation as a literary critic by the time he came to LSU in 1932 (three years before the founding of the Southern Review). As an undergraduate at Vanderbilt, he had discovered the possibilities of literary criticism when a graduate student read to his class an essay that Donald Davidson had written about a short story by Rudyard Kipling. When it came time for him to write his M. A. thesis at Tulane in 1929, Brooks began with an historical study of some of the sonnet sequences in sixteenth-century British poetry. But, as he got more and more into the material, he found himself concentrating increasingly on a technical discussion of metaphor. (This was his first extended foray into what would later be called new criticism.) When he went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in the fall of 1928, he was introduced to the seminal work of I. A. Richards. It was probably at this time that he began to realize that he had a more promising future as critic than as poet. Within a few years of his arrival at LSU, he had developed a critical approach that distinguished him not only from old-line scholars and extrinsic critics but from his mentors Richards and Ransom as well.

John Michael Walsh is to be commended for a thorough job of bibliographical research. As indispensable as his volume might be, however, it is not without limitations. In addition to a catalogue of Brooks's prose, I would like to have seen a listing of the poetry he published from the late twenties through the mid-forties. Also, a more comprehensive index would have been helpful. All that Walsh gives us are references to "Brooks on Writers" and "Writers on Brooks." To find discussions of a specific work by Brooks, one must turn to the listing for reviews of the work in question. There, Walsh has also listed cross references to relevant longer essays.

Another possible area of reproach is the purely expository nature of the annotations. Although this procedure works well enough for the primary entries, the reader is left with no guidance regarding the value of secondary material. The more comprehensive the secondary listings are, the more difficult it is to separate the wheat from the chaff. Obviously Walsh (or the editors of the Garland bibliography series) wanted the reader to be able to make up his own mind. But an annotated bibliography provides an opportunity for criticism as well as scholarship, for judgment as opposed to mere enumeration. In Walsh's book, it is an opportunity missed.

The only other obvious limitation of this volume is one that is endemic to all studies of living writers - it is an attempt to shoot at a moving target. Walsh had to complete his labors in early 1989. That means that his book is out of date by four years and counting. Of course, even if Walsh had waited for Brooks to stop writing, the secondary references would have continued to grow. It is possible to do a comprehensive secondary bibliography only of those writers who are no longer read. An update on Brooks would indicate that he continues to be topical as well as timeless. He publishes not only in the usual places (Southern literary reviews) but also in such polemical journals as the New Criterion, the American Scholar, and Partisan Review. Given the frequent appearances of the Partisan Review crowd in the old Southern Review, a circle of sorts was closed in 1991 when Brooks was invited to participate in Partisan Review's symposium on "The Changing Culture of the University." Afterwards he commented, only half in jest, that Partisan Review was now to his right.

In his writing, Brooks has always acknowledged the debt the critic owes to the historical scholar (his most recent book is entitled Historical Evidence and the Reading of Seventeenth-Century Poetry). The bibliographer is a kind of literary historian, who performs a valuable service for criticism. Consequently, anyone interested in assessing the achievement of Cleanth Brooks and his place in the literary history of this century is indebted to Walsh. What Walsh has done, however, is not itself criticism. It remains for others to offer interpretations and render judgments concerning the wealth of information he has compiled. This is necessary because the new criticism is not only an important historical phenomenon but also a force for sanity in a literary world bewitched by the glossalalia of critical theory and intimidated by the stridency of political correctness. Like the corn flakes in the recent television commercial, the new criticism has outlasted more recent fads. Those seeking intellectual nourishment would be well advised to try it again for the first time.
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Author:Winchell, Mark Royden
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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